SCRAM devices come under fire from Cook County board

Following Injustice Watch's reporting, county commissioners held a hearing into the company that has billed more than $3 million to defendants ordered to wear SCRAM alcohol monitors.

At a meeting of the Cook County board’s criminal justice committee Wednesday, commissioners questioned how a private company that provides SCRAM alcohol-monitoring devices to people ordered to wear them by the courts had been allowed to operate without a contract since January 2021.

The hearing, called by Commissioner Bridget Gainer, followed Injustice Watch’s reporting about the contracting lapse, the disproportionate number of people assigned to SCRAM by Associate Judge Gregory P. Vazquez at the Maywood courthouse, and the financial toll of the alcohol-monitoring program on the people ordered to wear the ankle bracelets.

CAM Systems, the vendor first selected in 2017 to provide SCRAM ankle bracelets in Cook County, charges defendants $12 to $24 per day to be on the monitor.

Investigations that expose, influence and inform. Emailed directly to you.

The company has billed more than $3 million to the 1,067 Cook County defendants who have been ordered to wear SCRAM bracelets from 2017 through 2021, according to data provided to the county board by the company.

An Injustice Watch review of the data showed that people spent an average of seven months on the device and owed, on average, nearly $2,800 — though one person who was assigned to wear SCRAM for nearly four and a half years was billed $26,600 for the device.

During the hearing, the Office of the Chief Judge, which oversees the circuit court’s probation and social services departments, defended continuing to partner with CAM Systems without a contract. Chief Financial Officer James Anderson said Chief Judge Timothy Evans’ office did not seek board approval for a one-year extension of the original contract at the end of 2020 because relatively few people had been referred to SCRAM in the depth of the pandemic, and “we believed we were at the precipice of shutting down the program,” Anderson said.

But Evans’ office didn’t shut down the program and didn’t renew CAM Systems’ contract, instead continuing with what Anderson called an “implied contract,” which he said is “recognized under Illinois law.”

But commissioners were not satisfied with the idea of an implied contract between a county agency and a private, for-profit business.

“I do think as a public entity that there are different expectations,” Commissioner Bridget Degnen told Anderson. “This vendor, just like any other vendor, needs to proceed through a reasonable procurement process for transparency.”

Degnen added that the lack of a contract is especially concerning when the people ordered to pay CAM Systems for SCRAM don’t have a choice of vendor. “We need to look at the way this vendor is profiting off of these people,” she said, “and if they want to make profit off of this, we need to know exactly what that profit is and determine whether or not that meets the county’s expectations.”

CAM Systems CEO Robert Nienhouse did not appear at the hearing and didn’t respond when asked by Injustice Watch how much of the $3 million the company billed to defendants had actually been collected or how much the company made in profits. As Injustice Watch first reported last year, CAM Systems has taken dozens of people to small claims court to recover more than $165,000 in debt related to SCRAM devices.

During the hearing, Gainer noted that the company “returns back to the same court system to then collect money when people can’t pay for SCRAM,” adding that this has turned the publicly funded court system into a tool for private profit. “It’s not right. We have to be mindful that private profit has no place (in the criminal justice system),” she said.

Following the hearing, Gainer introduced a resolution calling for a full audit of CAM Systems’ finances pertaining to its Cook County clients and an independent study of the efficacy of SCRAM. The criminal justice committee and full county board will vote next month on whether to approve the audit.

Anderson said Evans’ office has submitted a new draft request for proposals to the county’s procurement department and said the office is committed to continuing to offer SCRAM to judges as a sentencing alternative to incarceration. There was no indication that judges would be ordered to stop putting people on SCRAM through CAM Systems while the new contracting process gets underway.

SCRAM is most often assigned by judges as a condition of probation in DUI cases, but Injustice Watch found instances when Vazquez ordered defendants onto the device, despite the fact that they did not face alcohol-related charges.

According to the data that CAM Systems shared with the county board, 63% of the people fitted with a SCRAM device had been charged with drunken driving and another 22% faced reckless driving charges. But 56 people were put on SCRAM when charged with driving on a revoked or suspended license — and nearly three-quarters of them were ordered on the alcohol monitor by Vazquez.

Overall, Vazquez accounted for about 20% of all SCRAM assignments in the county from 2017 to 2021. However, 44% of the people who were assigned to SCRAM as of June were ordered to the device by Vazquez, according to data from the Office of the Chief Judge.

Investigations that expose, influence and inform. Emailed directly to you.